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Writing policy briefs


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Handout at the AERC Policy Briefs workshop - Addis Ababa, December 2015

Published in: Government & Nonprofit
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Writing policy briefs

  1. 1. AERC Policy Brief Workshop Addis Ababa, 2015 WRITING POLICY BRIEFS What is a policy brief and why is it important? A policy brief is a short stand-alone document, focused on a single topic, presenting and unpacking the findings and recommendations of a research project for an audience without specialist knowledge, and those who simply do not have the time to read long research documents. The main audience of a policy brief are those involved in the decision-making process (i.e decision makers) who may know little or nothing about the topic but probably need to have a general knowledge and background information in order to express an opinion or make a decision. In simple terms, a policy brief is a clear message tailored for a policy audience. Policy briefs are an essential tool for bridging the research to policy divide. They are usually between two to four pages in length; between 1000 and 2000 words. Make sure you are clear about your audience, what they need to know and what action you want them to take based on your policy brief; “writing that does not consider the audience is unlikely to succeed in its objectives”(Datta & Pellini, 2011). Is writing an effective policy brief really that difficult? Learning to write effective policy briefs takes time and patience. Research may lose its ‘purity’ and findings can be easily misrepresented through a poorly-written policy brief. Policy- makers, constrained by time and overwhelmed by various sources of information, are likely to make a snap decision when choosing information to inform their decisions. This means that your brief must stand out from the rest, in both its presentation and the clarity of content. You are trying to sell your research, so be clear, and be heard! Ingredients of an effective policy brief 1.Think about your audience: Know who your readers are, how knowledgeable they are about your subject, how open they are to your core message, and what their interests and concerns are. Make sure you tailor your key messages accordingly. 2. Think about the context: You need to be aware of the political context in which your target audience operates. Remember that policy makers are not a homogenous group; needs and priorities differ by sector and ministry, the level of position (national vs. subnational), role in policy-making process (level of power); and phase of the policy/decision-making process. In order to be applicable, your policy brief needs to be designed and tailored to the context in which your audience operates. 3. Evidence - Develop a persuasive argument: Think about “what value does this have for the reader?” Develop a persuasive line of argument stating clearly the purpose of your brief and providing an overview of your evidence. Articulate your message in a way that demonstrates the quality of your research, legitimacy of your findings and transparency of the evidence underpinning your policy recommendations.
  2. 2. POLICY BRIEF STRUCTURE Executive statement: [220 words max] Introduction: [330 words max] Methodology: [110-220 words max] Results and conclusions: [660 words max] References and other useful resources: [220 words max] A top tip for your executive statement ‘The objective of this policy brief is to ______ (action verb – like convince, inform) ______ (target audience(s) – e.g. Ministry of Agriculture) that ______ (what should happen – e.g. they should invest in road infrastructure). (ODI Rapid) Tips for writing a policy brief 1. Be Focused. All aspects of the policy brief (from the message to the layout) need to be clearly focused on your target audience, (so ask yourself ‘How can my policy brief have the most possible impact on this audience?’). Your argument must build on what they already know about a problem, and then provide insight on what they don’t know, and introduce your evidence on how the problem can be tackled. 2. Keep the audience in mind while writing. Use a professional as opposed to an academic tone. 3. Ground your argument in strong and reliable evidence. 4. Be Brief. The focus of the brief needs to be limited to a particular problem or area of a problem. Don’t try to cover all elements of your research in one policy brief. 5. Get to the point. Be succinct and to the point, using short sentences and paragraphs. 6. Think about your language. This not only refers to using clear and simple language (i.e. not the jargon and concepts of an academic discipline) but also to providing a well-explained and easy-to-follow argument targeting a wide but knowledgeable audience. 7. Make the text accessible. Make it easy for your reader to read all the way through by subdividing the text using clear descriptive titles as guides (i.e. the above- mentioned structure). 8. Be creative. The policy brief should catch the eye of the potential audience in order to create a favourable impression (e.g. professional, innovative etc.). Think creatively about how you present the information, e.g. use of colours, logos, photographs, slogans, illustrative quotes, boxes, etc. 9. Be practical and feasible. The policy brief is an action-oriented tool targeting policy practitioners. As such, the brief must provide arguments based on what is actually happening in practice with a particular policy, and propose recommendations which seem realistic to the target audience. 10. Make your policy brief travel. Don’t expect your brief to be read. Put some energy behind it, engage with information intermediaries (whose job it is to access research information and tailor it for different audiences), or go directly to policy makers and make them aware of your policy brief. You could also explore using social media such as Twitter, Social Bookmarking to bring attention to your policy brief.